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Stop trying to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a Marvel-esque cash cow – it won’t work
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Stop trying to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a Marvel-esque cash cow – it won’t work

The words hit players of the world’s favourite tabletop role playing game like a magic missile straight to the heart. “Dungeons & Dragons has never been more popular, and we have really great fans and engagement,” said Cynthia Williams, former CEO of D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast, in December 2022 at an “investor-focused” web seminar. “But the brand is really under-monetised”.

In the run-up to D&D’s 50th birthday this year, the branded tat has flowed with a vengeance. Amid the ongoing celebrations, Williams’ comments have acquired the ring of a terrible prophecy coming to fruition in the tackiest way imaginable. D&D is “monetising” as never before, and it is terrible to behold.

GaryCon celebrates Gary Gygax, one of the main creators of Dungeons & Dragons in March.View image in fullscreen

Wizards of the Coast (part of the Hasbro toy empire) has unveiled a Dungeon & Dragons Lego set – with a dragon-sized prize to match. It has also announced a tie-in with the Converse sneakers brand, with designs inspired by the original D&D handbooks from half a century ago. These products join an ever-expanding deluge of merchandise. Roll up, roll up for your D&D breakfast bowls, table lamps, and Dragonfire Roast “single-origin coffee”.

Merch is a key component of 21st-century geekdom. Lego, sneakers and table lamps are precisely the sort of products you would expect to accompany, say, a new Avengers or Star Wars movie. It is part of what we might call the “Baby Groot economy”.

But D&D isn’t Marvel. In trying to “monetise the brand”, Wizards has made a terrible misjudgment. In that notorious web seminar, Williams lamented that while Dungeon Masters – players who referee gaming sessions – make up 20% of the user base, they account for the bulk of the spending – ie they buy all of those expensive rule books. Joining her on the call, Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks outlined a plan to turn D&D into a “four-quadrant” brand “that has similar awareness as say Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter”.

What neither appears to understand is that D&D can never be the next Harry Potter. That is because D&D is not a franchise, lifestyle brand or a marketing opportunity. It is a community of people who largely make up their adventures for themselves. And you can’t monetise that. For all the recent hoopla around the game, the D&D experience is essentially unchanged since it first crawled out of the basement of co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974.

It is about pals coming together every week. They hang out, chuck dice, and share the thrill of exploring an abandoned dwarf mine or rescuing a cousin of one of the party from cultists camped in the woods outside town. You can’t put a price on that. It’s like trying to monetise friendship.

That new D&D Lego set is an example of how little Wizards and Hasbro understands its player base. At first pass, The “Red Dragon’s Tale” box seems full of promise. It features a brick fortress, a huge dragon, square-headed adventurers, and some iconic D&D monsters – including the Owlbear, Displacer beast and Beholder. There is even a tie-in adventure that uses the included figures.

Oh wow, you’re thinking –D&D Lego. What a fantastic way to get kids into the hobby. The catch is that this luxury box costs £314 – roughly the cost of six D&D Player’s Handbooks.

Wizards’ problem is that it has already burned through much of the goodwill of its user base after a controversy last year over plans to reverse a policy going back to 2000, taking away the freedom for independent creators to use D&D’s rules however they saw fit. Leaked proposals showed that Wizards intended to demand a 25% royalty on the income of creators with annual sales exceeding $750,000, and reserve the right to re-use any content created under the licence. “Big gaming” was coming for the little guy.

That saga created a huge rift between publisher and players. Many in the community now perceive Wizards not as custodian of a game it acquired in 1997, but as capitalist necromancers trying to flog D&D for all it is worth.

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Rose Herden, 34, a Dungeon Master who runs a game weekly at Fortress in Sydney. She hand makes D&D paraphernalia as part of her stories.View image in fullscreen

There was an outcry, and Wizards climbed down. Twelve months later, the 50th anniversary of D&D is here, and it feels telling how Wizards is marking it: with Lego and sneakers. Yes, commemorative books are on the way – along with an updated rules set that Wizards has styled as “One D&D”. But few were crying out for a new edition of D&D, and to many it feels like a cash-generating exercise. (In its defence, Wizards has said its “One D&D” books will be backwards compatible with the “Fifth Edition” everyone is currently playing.)

These are boom times for tabletop role playing. There has never been a wider variety of games – from the folk-horror steampunk of Free League’s Vaesen to “rules-light” systems such as Mausritter or Mörk Borg. What the publishers of these titles understand is that it takes time to cultivate a player base and that the relationship is an ongoing one.

Contrast that with D&D’s cheesy merch onslaught, and you have to worry. Forget monetisation. The crucial currency in the tabletop hobby is player goodwill. Amid a blizzard of junk, Wizards seems determined to sacrifice a 50-year legacy on the altar of unchecked corporate avarice.

Source: theguardian.com